The usual assumption about power is that there is only one kind — physical. Spiritual power exists too, though the two are not entirely unrelated, in my experience anyway. I don’t mean only the kind of spiritual power you find in church, synagogue or temple. Spiritual power sometimes manifests itself mysteriously in the arts, in the streets, in the schools, and occasionally in politics or the martial arts as well.
“Intelligent passivity can shape events quite as much as activity. Intelligent yielding is the key to guerilla warfare,” says Chris Humphrey, Whole Earth, Inner Space, in a passage derived from the Tao Te Ching. Just such intelligent yielding has helped me through several curious encounters in my life, including four violent incidents in the past couple years living on my own in Santa Fe, Austin and elsewhere.
Not commanding respect for a tall, muscular build, I had to develop other ways of handling situations, and quickly, in childhood and teen years. Instinctively, I resorted to the kind of “intelligent yielding” usually called judo, though I didn’t know its name then and still have not had lesson one in it. There is always more than one way to do a thing.
There are various sorts of power, and what spiritual power teaches has specific relation to physical situations. You have to really know what you are about, where you are, who you’re with. The best spiritual teaching counsels not to look away from physical reality but to definitely open your eyes to it. This can come in very handy when confronting real or supposed opposition. It makes you very alert and quick. You can’t pretend. If you do, you not only make a fool of yourself, you quite possibly endanger yourself as well.
Best not to be fooling around with violent people, of course. If, however, you mistakenly or accidentally find yourself amongst people who are not brothers or who do not comprehend your way, you then have to bring your powers to bear, whatever they are. For well over a decade I lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, usually in ghettoes. Yet at no time did I carry a weapon and seldom was I attacked.
But there is a different breed of people where I am living in recent years. Apparently they do not understand my style. My method has still held up miraculously well. Unlike burly poet Charles Bukowski, I still do not “carry steel” when I walk the streets at night, although I might if I lived in Los Angeles nowadays.
Can’t resist here a story told of Bukowski. Having little respect for zenmasters, at a party he followed one down steps to the street haranguing him for his phony (gentle?) manner. He regretted it, he said later. The Master ‘threw him’ and calmly walked off. ‘Buk’ has a healthy respect for zenmasters — if not zen itself — ever since.
Zen is in fact largely the art of spiritual judo, and Watts or someone describes it this way. You lean into or backwards with the student’s sally and throw it back onto him. This is exactly how I try to live my own life, though I have never formally been a student of zen. Some people don’t need the temple.